cold weather comfort food, comfort food, curing what ails you, ME, Pho, Saigon Restuarant Portland, Vietnamese

Seeking Saigon

From the West End to the Eastern Prom and from Commerical Street to Park Avenue, the best of Portland’s dining scene can be found in a condensed space. But, there are some hidden gems that you actually have venture out a bit for, mostly to Forrest Ave. I’m talking Po’ Boys and Pickles, Susan’s Fish and Chips and Saigon Restaurant. They’re all their own representation of comfort food and are all restaurants that The Missus and I love not only for their charm, but for their delicious, and ridiculously inexpensive food.

A recent trip to Saigon was purely for the comfort factor. After an exceedingly stressful ending to the day, I wanted nothing more than to hunker over one of their sizable bowls of Pho (make no mistake, they are serving up the best in Portland) and be soothed by the warming blends of spices in their broth.

I can only make a guess as to what it contains: cinnamon? Star anise? clove? Black pepper? Unicorn Tears? It honestly doesn’t matter–you don’t always need to look behind the curtain to see how the magic is made–all I know is that it did it’s trick. My dish was ‘E7,’ a combination of rare beef and beef meatball, while The Missus, who is always a bit more adventurous when it comes to Pho consumption, ordered the ‘E8’ or Pho Special with tripe, nape, rare beef and well done beef. Her only sadness was that there was no meatball. Not that there was much room, even at a medium sized ordering, we were both struggling to finish the majority of the bowl.

Both were served with the traditional accompaniments of Thai basil, sawtooth herb, bean sprouts, sliced chiles hot chili paste and limes.

Surely, that would have been plenty for anyone, but this actually proceeded three other dishes like
the tofu soup that seems to be complimentary with every order.  We’ve been to Saigon three time and neither one of us has any idea what it actually is (aside from being a wonderfully sweet tofu soup that always only seems to have one pea in it).

The Missus always has to have her prerequisite Crab Rangoon. I wouldn’t say that there’s a whole lot of crab happening in these, but at least they don’t taste like the artificial crab that fills many a rangoon in town. To me, they came off more like extremely crunchy cream cheese dumplings.

But, the surprise of the meal, though was an appetizer special of steamed rice pancake, ground pork, pork skin, onions, pickled daikon and carrot, basil, lettuce, cucumber and fish sauce. It looked like a deconstructed Banh Mi, minus the baguette and mayonnaise. The hardest part was figuring exactly out how to eat it, but much of that didn’t matter once I took a bite of the pork. I didn’t care how messy this affair was going to get, everything on the plate, particularly the pate-esque hunk of pork, was delicious and I was going to clear it all. So, we finagled a few overstuffed rolls, that fell apart with every bite.

By the time we left, I had managed to drown a craptastic day in a giant bowl of Pho and fish sauce. Mai and her staff at Saigon are definitely serving up the cures to what may ail you and it’s more than worth the trip out Forest Ave. to pay them a visit. 

bomb diggity bakery, cause for paws, eating local, food politics, local sprouts cafe, ME, vegan portland

Saturday Night at Local Sprouts

Local Spouts isn’t for those who belly grumble over the terms “local” or “sustainable.” It’s not for those who like to keep their plates and their politics separate. They, as you can see from the wall painting in the cafe, wear their commitment to the community, and those that provide their food, proudly.

The space, filled with art, ‘Zines, community fliers, t-shirts, teas and other local wares is so engaging that I felt a smidge over stimulated (in a good way) when we first walked in.  I had never more than looked in the windows once or twice and now that I was fully inside, I wondered what had stopped me from venturing further. Honestly, I had my own (wrongfully) preconceived notions that it’s food was comprised of mostly vegan ‘lot’ food and that just doesn’t really do it for me unless The Missus and I are strolling down Shakedown. Can I just say how horribly wrong and ignorant I was?

Our first trip down to 649 Congress Street was for a night of music and fundraising for Cause for Paws (A HUGE amount of thanks to Figa Restaurant and Sweet Marguerites for their donations!). It was a beautiful evening of friends and food and the space was filled with so much love that it spilled out onto Congress. While musicians, like local Rockabilly master Sean Mencher and His Rhythm Kings, filled the space with music, we filled our bellies with simple, creative food from the kitchen.

The Missus ordered the fish tacos.  The plate, loaded with a generous portion of beans, rice, slaw, salsa and seared fish, looked fresh and beautiful. Truthfully, I didn’t snag anything more than a bite of her pancake like tortillas (which we both thought were a bit odd in texture)  but she seemed to enjoy everything on top of them.  I could hardly pull myself away from my own plate to steal any more bites from hers. She also enjoyed an Allagash White, one of many locally produced brews and beverages available and served in mason jars. Actually, our group may have used every single jelly jar in the joint. There was a lot of celebrating. 
But, I digress.

I chose the Peanut Tofu, with seasonal vegetables, and the flavors of the dish could have easily stood next to those from some of the best Thai restaurants in town. The noodles were well coated, but not drowned, in a slightly spicy, tangy peanut sauce. The vegetables (broccoli, carrot, cabbage, scallion, red onion and pea shoots) were abundant and perfectly crisp and the tofu had a nice crisp crust on the outside that prevented it from breaking down when tossed with the noodles and added a nice layer of flavor.  The portions of each were so large that we easily made two meals out of the leftovers, making it a ridiculously good deal on top of a wonderful meal in a fun, comfortable environment.

The staff was kind, patient and attentive amongst the organized chaos that we created at the counter and the weeds we threw the kitchen into.  They were more than helpful in asking if we needed anything while setting up and didn’t rush us out when we kept them past closing. They made us feel like every member of our group, even those of us who were there for the first time, was part of their cozy cooperative family. And it’s that vibe, but more so the food, that will bring us back again and again.

Local Sprouts Cafe and Bomb Diggity Bakery on Urbanspoon

artemesia cafe, Breakfast and brunch, brunch in Portland, ME, neighborhood gems

Artemisia Cafe

There aren’t many “off the beaten path” or “hidden gems” in Portland. So much of our dining scene exists between Commercial and Cumberland, in the main sections of town. But, there are a few unassuming places–like Ohno! Cafe and Caiola’s–that are tucked away in cute little neighborhoods. Artemisia Cafe, located on Pleasant Street, is one of those gems and I’m lucky to call it my neighborhood spot.

During the week, Tuesday through Friday, they’re only open for a quick window of time (11am-2pm) where they serve up a variety of soups, sandwiches and salads, with a daily special written on the large chalkboard that occupies nearly the entirety of the back wall.

The space is well loved and homey, with throw pillows in the booths for a little extra, comfortable cushion. There’s a small bar and waiting area, but during the week the restaurant is relatively quiet. Come the weekend, though, expect a 20+ minute wait for a table.

Their brunch, for me, ranks up there with Schulte and Herr and Caiola’s. Again, since it’s right in our neighborhood, it’s hard to resist popping over on a lazy Sunday morning.

They’re opened longer hours on the weekend (9am-2pm), thankfully. The brunch menu is no longer than most places in town and they offer the usual eggs and bacon, french toast, four different types of Eggs Benedict, Huevos Rancheros, fruit bowls and, my favorite, Biscuits with Sausage Gravy.

How good are those biscuits (pictured above)? Even my mom, ever the picky eater, loved them the last time she visited and my sister, who joined her, hounded me until I went over and asked them for the recipe for their gravy. Out of respect for the restaurant, I won’t post it here, but I will say that it’s not your typical sausage and gravy mix. Think of it more like a bechamel, thickened with a variety of cheeses and large chunks of Italian sausage. And the chef definitely doesn’t skimp on the amount of sausage, either, which some places do. Ladle that goodness over two house made flaky biscuits and you have yourself a breakfast of champions or just a really good cure for a horrible hangover. Oh, and just to make it even better, they throw in two eggs(your choice) and a side of home fries. All for just $9.50.

But, not only is the food wonderful, the service is too. There’s a blonde waitress (please forgive me for forgetting her name at the moment) who is ever present in the dining room and always on her game, even on the days when she seems to be the only one and waist deep in the weeds. She’s nice, cheerful and always engaging. Basically, she’s the embodiment of everything I could ask for in a server. We’ve had her as our waitress nearly every time we’ve gone in and she has been all of that and more. I’ve never seen her flinch or lose her cool when dealing with a loud, probably still intoxicated, table or a family of four whose children have decided to finger paint with the maple syrup. She definitely makes our time their much more enjoyable and kudos to for being one of my favorite servers in Portland.

So, when you’re looking for a spot to pop out to brunch this weekend, consider forgoing the usual haunts and take a trip to my neighborhood and stop in to Artemesia Cafe and, for the love of God, someone try the Sausage and Biscuits.

Artemisia Cafe on Urbanspoon